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The Resurgence of Comic Book Back Issues

My 12-year-old daughter just bought 2 Bronze Age comics this week. The first was an 80s Iron Man comic with a cover that reminded her of one of her favorite sequences from the MCU. The second was an 80s Spider-Man comic because she has a crush on Tom Holland.

You might say she isn’t a typical collector, but it is stories like this that help explain the resurgence of back issue collecting we are seeing in the comic book industry. Why does my 12-year-old daughter beg me to take her to the comic book shop so she can look through long boxes for bargains? Well, she loves the MCU movies, we watch WandaVision each Friday as a family and, equally importantly, she has a crush on Tom Holland.

Marvel Studios has at least a couple dozen future projects planned and – if WandaVision has taught us anything – it’s that they aren’t planning to pie-smash us in the face with show after show of nothing but non-stop high-octane action. Sure, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is coming and it will be high action, but it’s clear that other MCU shows plan to lean heavily into drama and emotion, just like us OG comic readers remember from our stacks of Claremont X-Men.

The brilliance of Kevin Fiege is he has a wizard’s touch in terms of knowing what connects with audiences and the MCU delivers on that with stories that sprinkle in a little bit of everything, plus the kitchen sink. The MCU has almost a superpowered versatility that can present humor, action, drama, espionage, sci-fi, horror, hijinks, heists and, yes, action with equal aplomb.

That means they are telling stories for everyone. 12-year-olds love it, as do that kid’s mom, and her little sister, and certainly her dad, who is writing this article right now. And Marvel Studios tells those stories by using characters who have been adventuring tirelessly in comics for decades, which is certainly of interest to dad.

So, with all that in mind, is there anything that has more potential collectibility than comic books? I mean, comic books have been meticulously cared for by being placed in a plastic bag with a sturdy backing board, then placed lovingly in long boxes where they could be searched through.

And literal millions have been produced, many with colorful characters that have been part of our cultural conversation for decades. They feature stories for everyone. And now those stories are being broadcast worldwide, accessible on our iPhones.

All of this has added up to a resurgence in back issue comic book collecting.

Flipping Through Long Boxes

But let’s be very, very clear here. This boom of back issues has very little in common with the 90s. This is not driven by 3D foil covers and Levi’s commercials. This is not the 90s all over again, it’s something very different.

It’s not mainly speculators who are flipping through long boxes. It is 12-year-old girls who are emotionally connected to the stories that Marvel is telling and they want to own something tangible and physical that connect them to those characters they have seen brought to life on the screen.

The Key Collector app tracks key issues, their prices, and hot/cold streaks in the industry. They say this about West Coast Avengers #45, the 1st appearance of “Ghost Vision” that we saw at the end of WandaVision: “On March 5th [the date of the final episode of WandaVision], there were twice as many sold listings of Scarlet Witch and Vision issues than on the 4th and this was AFTER many collector/speculators turned away form the books once the many theories didn’t materialize.”

Key Collector continues, “While investors are hiking up values on books like Ultimate Fallout #4 and New Mutants #98 in anticipation of future monetary returns, there is an emerging fanbase who have an emotional investment and a desire to own a representation of what is adapted to live action. Some of these are not the traditional first appearance key issues. These are “event” key issues like when Captain America lifted Thor’s hammer in Endgame, elevating Thor #390 from the dollar bins. And it’s still a $30 book today!”

These new collectors are a diverse and vocal community that causes Marvel stuff to trend on Twitter daily, yet don’t resemble the comic fans of yesterday in many ways, save for the shared love of the characters. In other words, they aren’t chasing variant covers, they are seeking an emotional experience.

Better, new collectors are able to flip through Bronze Age comics and take a look a their heroes in a way they don’t see on the screen, which is fun. The distinctive throwback flavor enhances the experience.

Marvel Comics was genre-heavy, cosmic-trippy, and IP-curious in the 70s and into the 80s. Genres like kung-fu and horror were popular in the 70s, so Marvel published titles like Master of Kung-Fu and Dracula in order to capitalize on those trends. LSD was evidently popular among the writers at Marvel during that time, so Doctor Strange was never stranger than he was in the 70s. And classic Marvel cosmic tales like Kree/Skrull War were also told during that era.

Fans of Captain Marvel, WandaVision, Doctor Strange, etc. never knew their heroes as they were written in the 80s, they have only experienced them on the big screen. So a back issue story is a fun way to experience their favorites in a fresh way and with what they consider “vintage” art styles.

“But They Don’t Collect!”

An experience I had at my Friendly Local Comics Shop (FLCS) stuck with me. Another patron was complaining about what was literally the pettiest thing you could think of. As emotionally unhealthy people are wont to be, he was taking his frustrations out on the store employee who, to the employee’s credit, was remaining very patient and polite.

I mean, the Baloney-Meter was going off hard-core on this guy, which is not to be confused with Nerds on Earth’s Bologna-Meter, the former detects entitled phony-baloney nonsense, while the latter detects processed meats. Both are handy.

New comics were delayed, myyyyy gaaaaaawd, so thanks for NOTHING, Pope Gregory XIII. A delayed product is an event that the patient store employee obviously had zero control over, yet you should have heard the sighs and moans come off of Baloney Bro.

He then started spouting a bunch of off-the-shelf anti-establishment jargon like “cash grab,” “and this place doesn’t care about its customers.” That’s right, a small business that sells comic books and plastic elf miniatures is too corporate for Baloney Bro!

Listen, I don’t know the employees of your Friendly Local Comic Shop (FLCS). But I like to think the best of people, so I’m assuming he or she is aligned at least chaotic neutral and likely falls in the good domain. And the employee who had to put up with the above-mentioned chucklehead? He’s a lawful good hero.

I share this because small business ownership is a tough gig even before COVID and literally every new comic in 2020 was delayed. Yet the darnedest thing happened. The good-aligned shoppers rallied and supported their shops, many of which were hustling to set up online webstores and/or curbside pickup.

And shop owners performed like doggone superheroes, pivoting immediately to do whatever they could to stay open. Game and comic shops are so valuable to us nerds. I’m so thankful that so many roll a nat 20 on their Constitution check and survived 2020. That survival was largely in part from the resurgence of back issue sales.

“But they don’t collect!” critics like Baloney Bro will cry. Are we sure of that? The emotional connection this new breed of collector is the current critical aspect in the perseverance of the hobby. I have a good relationship with Tim, my local shop owner. He has two daughters of his own and he and I swap dad stories.

When my 12-year-old was spending her own money on back issues, Tim was beaming. “These,” he said as he waved his arm to signal the back issues, “are why this shop is still in business. I couldn’t be happier that the next generation has discovered them.”

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